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Keeping Food Fresh in The Tropics

Costa Rica News – I’m not a glutton, and I’m certain I’m not a miser or pack rat, but I do tend to hoard food. For a long time I stockpiled because there simply weren’t any decent pulperias, grocery stores in our area. 

fresh food in costa rica 1Back in the late 1980s, a whiny old Italian expat ran our local pulperia. He slouched behind the counter of his little multi-colored, rundown shack and kept a board across the entrance, barring anyone access inside. No matter what the weather, he had some complaint. “It’s too hot and sticky,” he would moan, running his hands through his uncombed white hair. Three days later, when a refreshing rain washed the place clean, he’d kvetch, “It’s too cold, and the rain… it’s so depressing.”

He never let me pick the items I wanted; instead he held up vegetables that were ready for the compost bin, and asked, “How many?” Rotting, rubbery carrots, some black-spotted cabbage, and a small bin of onions that reared half the world’s population of fruit flies, were the extent of his inventory. I’ve heard hell’s punishment for gluttony is being force-fed rats, toads, and snakes for eternity. It couldn’t be any worse that those vegetables. Mostly, unless desperate, we traveled the 40 kilometers to Limón and the bigger markets, but that took hours because the roads were so bad. Consequently, if I saw something we needed, or I wanted, I bought two or three and stashed the rest.

Now, of course, there are grocery stores you can walk into, browse the aisles, handle the fruits and vegetables, and pick your own. The roads are paved, so running into town is a viable option. Puerto Viejo even has its own Saturday Market now where vendors from the Central Valley bring an array of farm-fresh vegetables, eggs, cheese, and there is even a local expat who makes and sells homemade organic tofu.

I’ve seen fennel the size of softballs and carrots so full of juice they practically bleed when you cut them. Last time I was there, an organic vendor had both dragon and curly kale as well as heritage carrots in black, yellow, and orange. There are red and yellow onions, zucchini, eggplants, shallots, and greens. It is hard for me, and I must repeat to myself like a mantra, “Only buy one, there will be more next week.”

But I still hoard.

If I travel to the U.S. to visit family, I bring things that are hard to find or too expensive here. I always imagine fresh food in costa ricathe TSA guys opening the eight or ten tubes of the Arm & Hammer toothpaste I pack. I’ve brought dried fruits and nuts that were unavailable on the Caribbean coast until recently, vitamins, and other assorted items. Customs did take away some organic borlatti beans I brought one year. I guess they worried I’d plant them. Not everything passes their test.

Food hoarder or weekly shopper at the farmer’s market, my larder is always chock-a-block full and the freezer packed tight. So, I thought I’d share a few storage tips I use to keep foods fresh in the tropics:

• Wrap opened cheeses in gauze or cheese cloth before storing it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator to prevent mold.

• Greens last longer and stay crisper when wrapped in a tea towel and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

• Cooked vegetables last longer than fresh ones, so blanch (or steam) broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans. Store them in a plastic containers in the fridge for later use.

• Keep all pasta, rice, sugar, beans, and flours in airtight containers. If not, expect your cupboards to explode with food moths and ants when you open them.

• The only items you should see in your pantry are canned or boxed goods. Keep in mind, high humidity will rust cans in short order, so check your supplies frequently.

• Keep all spices, herbs, nuts, crackers, chips, granola, and leavening yeast in the freezer section of your refrigerator. Or consider buying a small freezer.  We did, and it is an invaluable addition.

• Refrigerate bread products and freeze any extra (if you make or buy it in bulk).

• Refrigerate seeds, dried fruits, baking soda, and baking powder. This last item tends to lose potency faster in tropical weather, so check for freshness often.

• Freeze strawberries and blackberries on a cookie sheet and bag them in the freezer for later use.

• Make pesto from parsley or cilantro and freeze it for longer life.

• Buy smaller-sized bottles of cooking oil to avoid it going rancid. We use olive oil and have had no issues.

• Refrigerate ketchup and any open condiments you might have kept in a pantry in a colder climate. They will grow mold in the tropics.

• Do not throw away plastic containers, glass jars with decent lids, or zip-lock storage bags. These can be washed and reused for food storage.

• Use airtight cooler boxes (Coleman® and the like) for dry food storage.

With proper preparation and storage, it is possible to stow your hard-to-find items and keep them fresh for future use.

By Sarah Corbett Morgan

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